Bonnie Lander Johnson on the strange 21st-century cult of Fridolatry
This summer we took our children to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum where, with hundreds of thousands of others, we hoped to delight in Kahlo’s mad floral scenes and stare through glass at her prosthetic legs and perfume bottles.
Fridolatry is nothing new. For decades Frida’s face has appeared on Barbie dolls, bags and calendars. At the V&A, a stream of women and girls, their pale hair tied up with ribbons and flowers, sought to imitate Frida’s style. Kahlo’s tortured self-portraiture seems to invite imitation, promising to those who follow her a life of meaning, in which beauty is the fruit of suffering and the artistic concentration on the self is a valiant struggle out of obscurity, physical pain and emotional neglect.
Until recently, Fridolatry fed only on Kahlo’s paintings and domestic objects. But the recent discovery of the artist’s intimate objects in a locked household cupboard in Mexico City has ensured that Kahlo is now the subject of full-blown secular hagiography. Shortly after these objects came to light in 2004, Ishiuchi Miyako produced a volume of still-life photographs that confront the viewer with close-up images of hairs from Frida’s head lodged in her old toothbrush, and the lipstick smears and cigarette burns on the cuffs and collars of her famous
clothing. These items swim around in the foreground of a blue room, where lines of light emerge indistinctly as though the house were underwater and its abandoned contents floating upwards towards the viewer.
The curators of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up have sought to achieve a similar dream-like experience. Visitors must squeeze through the exhibition door into a dark blue room to study early photographs of Kahlo, charting her childhood and her embrace of communism.
From there a series of corridors open out from each other, each dimly lit and hung with retablos (small Mexican devotional paintings) and indigenous art, until we reach a corridor with nothing on display. It is filled with patterned light dancing across black walls and a soundscape at once mechanical and watery. This passage leads to a large room filled with glass cases modelled on the four-poster bed in which Kahlo spent most of her infirm life. In each case is a different set of objects: Kahlo’s back braces and corsetry, hairpins and toothbrushes, nail polish and sewing box.
One case contains her medicine jars and some letters to her doctors. It is well known that Kahlo needed continual medical care and became good friends with many of her surgeons. Of greatest relevance to her art is that she usually paid for her treatment with commissioned paintings because she had so little money. But this is overlooked at the V&A, where the presentation of the medicine cabinet instead suggests that Kahlo had a morphine habit. There is little evidence to confirm this claim, but the implication of drug addiction and illicit affairs with medical men fits neatly with the curators’ dark vision.
In the exhibition’s final room a vast glass case contains numerous papier-mâché mannequins of Kahlo wearing her famous dresses and standing below suspended deer antlers. In the corner of the room the exit lies behind a final mannequin, this time dressed in the traditional white bridal wear of Tehuana Mexicans, which adorned Kahlo’s corpse before it was burnt.
Comforting the terrified children, we squeezed through the exit into an enormous shop. It was brightly lit and drenched in colour, selling books and pictures of Frida, carpets, maracas, jewellery and replica dresses (for around £300). Now, finally, we heard the triumphant Mariachi music that Frida so loved. It jostled us towards the cash registers where, to placate the children, I bought some bracelets made in China.
Beyond the shop was a quiet display of medieval religious art. Christ looked down from his Crucifixion and the saints stared out from the carved surfaces of stone and tree bark. We were the only pilgrims who stopped to look at them.
Kahlo’s Catholic upbringing is rarely noted by critics, except through the retablos paintings that so influenced her style. Frida exchanged the faith for communism: as her illnesses escalated, she saw the relationship between suffering and beauty in political rather than spiritual terms. Through communism, she thought, her suffering could be converted into the good of the community – a modern, secular idea of the Cross.
While the exhibition searched for Kahlo’s darkened soul, the Frida shop offered nothing more than delightful tat – a reminder that a secular society cannot ultimately understand the relationship between suffering, life and love. At the V&A, Frida’s devotees seek to be close to the artist’s relics, as though by touching the physical traces of her suffering they may glimpse the glory to which her paintings reach. But that glory, unlike the promises of Catholicism, only exists as art. It was a bitter irony to reflect on as we stood beneath the gallery’s neglected medieval Crucifixion.
Bonnie Lander Johnson is a writer and academic